Proposals and Performative Utterance in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: The Professional Man's Plight

Robert A. Ferguson

in Subversion and Sympathy

Published in print January 2013 | ISBN: 9780199812042
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780199315888 | DOI:
Proposals and Performative Utterance in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: The Professional Man's Plight

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This chapter examines the ubiquitous plot device of the marriage proposal. It argues that the marriage plot provides resolution in the novel of manners for the same reason that comedy has used the wedding celebration as an ending since Aristophanes. Success in the comic mode requires a coming together of opposites, and marriage solves that problem on a characterological level better than other alternatives. Even so, the pattern in the nineteenth-century English novel is not without its mysteries, and unraveling those mysteries tells us something about understanding, expectations, problems, and anxieties in Regency and Victorian England. Two questions help to situate these mysteries, for even though marriages take place with numbing predictability in the nineteenth-century novel, a reader hardly ever finds a full-blown, articulated, successful marriage proposal in them. Why, then, to formalize these questions, are most successful proposals of marriage performed off stage or through indirect discourse or narrative summary, and why are so many of the unfortunate swains in these novels clergymen or lawyers who handle the situation directly but badly? These patterns continue across the nineteenth century and beyond, but the chapter focuses on two leading novelists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with special attention given to two of their most prominent and frequently cited novels, Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Dickens's Bleak House (1853).

Keywords: marriage proposal; plot device; comedy; manners; English novel; Jane Austen; Charles Dickens; Pride and Prejudice; Bleak House

Chapter.  6502 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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